Can we bring zero-rating with us into a post-lockdown world?

One truly extraordinary outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic was the coming together of government, private sector and education to make zero-rating work for our most vulnerable students.
Can we bring zero-rating with us into a post-lockdown world?

It has been two years since that fateful day President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the Coronavirus pandemic a National State of Disaster and instituted a series of lockdowns and other extraordinary measures in response to the global crisis. One of those extraordinary measures was the development of the regulations around zero-rating for educational sites for learners and students. What was also truly extraordinary was the coming together of the private mobile network operators, government and educational institutions to make zero-rating work for our most vulnerable students.

“One of the consequences of spatial inequalities in South Africa is that when the universities closed, many students went from access to high-speed Internet on campus, to being reliant on a cell phone with high data costs,” said Guy Halse, head of trust and identity at TENET speaking at the time.

Now, as evidence seems to suggest the worst of the pandemic is behind us, South Africans are looking forward to a release of restrictions and announcement of the end of the National State of Disaster. The concern, however, says Halse, is that zero-rating as we know it is tied to the National State of Disaster and once that falls away so too do the current regulations around zero-rating.

“This leaves us in a state of uncertainty,” says Halse.“The academic year has just begun, and while schools have returned to full contact teaching many universities and the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges have not. Even as we return to full-contact teaching completely it is widely acknowledged the world has changed, and to greater and lesser extents online teaching and learning is here to stay. Students, particularly in rural and under-resourced areas with minimal Internet access, have come to rely on zero-rating and for them the loss of this access could be catastrophic.”

A thank you to our mobile network providers and a plea to keep on going

“The original regulations, put together in a hurry, had some issues,” said Halse. “We were entering into an unknown world as school and higher education services rapidly moved online and we all had to figure it out as we went along.”

He says we came through the other side with greater success than we would otherwise have, thanks to the willingness of mobile network operators to remain open to engagement and listen to the needs of the community. In some cases their liberal interpretations of the regulations meant students could access critically important cloud-hosted learning management systems.

“This made all the difference to those students and learners who would otherwise have had no access to the Internet due to the high costs of data in South Africa.”

A careful and measured way forward

After two years of zero-rating provision much has been learned about how the process could be improved. We’ve seen the spirit of the regulations abused by individuals who figured out how to make the system work for them, and we’ve a better appreciation of the needs of the Post School Education and Training sector. During this period broad agreement was reached that zero-rating needs to be governed by a set of fair use principles to protect both the operators and the beneficiaries of zero-rating. These fair use principles would clearly define what students and learners have access to, and what counts as abuse, and offers detail around at what point a service provider can cut off an individual subscriber when they have exceeded a certain level of data usage.

These kinds of fair use principles will ensure zero-rating can continue to benefit those vulnerable students and learners in a way that is sustainable for the network operators.

Data as a public utility

Coincidentally, in 2019, prior to COVID-19 and lockdowns the Competition Commission released its Data Services Market Inquiry Final Report which, among other things, recommended mobile operators reach agreement on a consistent industry-wide approach to the zero-rating of content from public benefit organisations and educational institutions.

A significant point made in this report is that in our digital age, South Africa has too high a proportion of people who are shut out of the economy because they cannot afford the minimum amount of data needed to participate. This report is in line with a growing view that data can and should be seen as a public utility, much like water or electricity, without which individuals cannot reach their full capacity.

“In some countries Internet access is viewed as a basic human right,” says Halse. “In South Africa it is probably not feasible to provide Internet to all in the same way Denmark or equivalent countries can. We may not even be able to provide the basic lifeline of data to all consumers as recommended by the Competition Commission and suggested by President Ramaphosa in his 2022 State of the Nation Address, but we can explore ways to at least ensure our learners and students are offered the access they need to pursue their studies and begin to pull themselves and their families out of the cycle of poverty.”